David Foster Wallace lives on for an "Infinite Summer"

One giant book, 92 days, thousands of readers -- and the world's most ambitious reading group

Published July 14, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

There are many ways to cope with death, but founding an online book club is a pretty unique approach. "When I heard that David Foster Wallace had died, it was like remembering an assignment that had been due the day before," said Matthew Baldwin. A blogger who regretted never having finished "Infinite Jest," Baldwin founded InfiniteSummer.org, a Web site and collaborative reading experiment that creates a vast literary support group for completing the late author's 1,079-page tome over the course of this summer.

Published in 1996, "Infinite Jest" was David Foster Wallace's second, and ultimately final, completed novel, and has become known equally for its sprawling attention to detail, its near impenetrability and its effectiveness as a doorstop. Often compared to experimental fiction like "Ulysses" and "Naked Lunch," its list of characters (and their fictional filmographies) alone may be longer than some entire novels. In the foreword to the paperback release, penned by Wallace's friend and contemporary Dave Eggers, he promises that the book isn't actually daunting, and that its author is indeed a "normal person." But that's no consolation to the legions who have quit reading the book partway through. Baldwin admits that before he started the project, he had only read about 75 pages -- but they'd stuck with him. "It sat in my library for so long that I no longer even saw it when I scanned the shelves," he said. "But based on what little I had read, I knew for a fact that I would enjoy all 1,000 pages. I can't say that with such certainty for, say, 'Don Quixote.'"

When Wallace died last year, I felt an itch of hard-to-place sadness for this man I did not know, whose work I had barely began to graze. His writing seemed made for me, set on the outer cusp of the television generation and the dawning of an Internet era; the humor, the tennis and the weed all mixed in a curious haze. With his long, stringy hair, eternal stubble and ubiquitous bandanna, Wallace was like an untouchable older brother, his stereo bass bumping from down the hall and his intrigue limitless.

As I ease into my 20s and the one-year anniversary of his death approaches, "Infinite Jest" suddenly seems within my grasp -- in large part because the Infinite Summer project injected a fun and contagious competitive spirit into something that had come to seem like a Herculean solo undertaking. The Web site lays out a "summer syllabus" of target page numbers by date, dividing the novel's intimidating 981 pages (plus 388 endnotes) by the number of days in the summer, which adds up to about 75 pages per week. Infinite Summer provides playful (but helpful) tips and guest essays -- largely personal accounts, including one from a seasoned four-time reader of the book and another from the singer of indie-rock band the Decemberists, Colin Meloy, who admits that "Infinite Jest" has lingered on his shelf ever since an impulse buy in 1997.

On the hyperactive discussion forums, everyone from Wallace virgins to connoisseurs can offer interpretations and suggest topics (organized by the reading schedule in order to prevent spoilers). One reader wondered about the book's setting -- a futuristic hybrid of the United States, Canada and Mexico referred to as the Organization of North American Nations or by the acronym ONAN -- sparking a conversation about the biblical character Onan and the notoriously wasteful practice of masturbation (i.e., onanism). Elsewhere, the novel's reference to a "trial-size dove bar" sparked a debate about whether Wallace was referring to the chocolate or the soap. Eventually, a fan -- whose source claims to have asked the author personally -- announced definitively that it was, in fact, a reference to the ice-cream bar. Puzzling over this kind of pop cultural minutiae is all the more fun when reading along with a few thousand of your closest Internet friends.

Of course, "Infinite Jest" also captures what Wallace called "a real American type of sadness" -- that of "a white, upper-middle-class, obscenely well-educated" guy who is successful, and yet terribly lonely and adrift. Which makes the idea of bringing so many people together for a communal reading of the book all that more meaningful. To some, the "book club" may seem like an archaic social experience -- connotations of housewives and airport novels abound -- but many Infinite Summer participants enjoy the, well, infinite possibilities of this Web project. Paul Debraski, a New Jersey librarian who finds himself reading 20-25 pages on his one-hour lunch break, was initially attracted by "the camaraderie of achieving something big in a group" without the geographical limitations of a traditional book club. Cynthia Newberry Martin, a 52-year-old fiction writer, had kept "Infinite Jest" on a "to-be-read" shelf since 1996, but sets a goal of only 11 pages a day, keeping her on schedule. Baldwin insists that the greatest strength of an Internet-based book club is the concept of an archive, allowing someone on any schedule to check in whenever it is convenient. "Someone could read 'Infinite Jest' a year or five years from now, following along with the site as they do so, and feel as if they are part of the community despite the temporal separation," he said.

Also reading along are blogging superstars like Matthew Yglesias of Think Progress (reading on the Kindle) and Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, while essay contributors to the site include Jason Kottke and even Wallace's editor, Michael Pietsch. In good company, I resolve to keep plugging along, even as I fall behind, fearing the online shame and personal disappointment that would accompany surrender. In a book where one paragraph can sometimes stretch across three pages, an army of fellow readers provides not only extra aid in deconstructing this intricate epic, but also playful pep talks that cement solidarity and make finishing this book both a private and social experience.

As for Baldwin (who is about 100 pages ahead of schedule), he says he is surprised by the viral success of the project. Though he claims to have "zero reliable metrics" on Infinite Summer's participants, Baldwin monitors the project's presence on social networks including a Facebook group, blog comments and Twitter followers, who have taken to discussing the project using the #infsum hash tag. "It's important to understand, my goal in organizing this event was simply to encourage myself to read the book," he said. "That Infinite Summer wound up encouraging thousands of others to do likewise is just gravy."

By Joe Coscarelli

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Books David Foster Wallace Fiction Summer Reading